Trouble Looming over Burqa Ban

So, French MPs have voted to ban the burka.

We know where this story will go next.  Somewhere in France, a woman will engage in a piece of civil disobediance and enter a public space wearing her veil.  She will draw attention, crowds, the press.  She will be asked to leave, but she will not leave.  Eventually, she will be deported from the area by the gendarmerie or other state agency.  Worse, someone may try to pull off the offending strip of cloth.

This event will be photgraphed and videoed by more than one person, and the footage will be on YouTube within the hour.  It will then become a staple of anti-secular propaganda, proving the intolerance of the European mind and the inherent anti-Islamic sentiment sweeping the West.

Some might suggest that my worries about this inevitable end-point are purely pragmatic.  They might agree that the new French law is counter-productive in the PR war against fundamentalist Islam… but then go on to argue that sometimes, the right decisions are not popular and that we cannot allow short-term realpolitik to trump the principle of the thing.

Here, I have to disagree.  I think that the question over policing what people wear is the principle at stake here.  Dictating dress codes is an incursion on an individual’s free expression.  If we condemn a misogynistic religion or a patriarchal culture when it proscribes what women wear, then how can we support a government that intervenes (and sets prohibitions) in precisely the same arena?  It is appalling.

I often hear the argument that women who wear the veil are “brainwashed”, an assertion that certainly makes sense to me.1 But such a claim is unfalsifiable, impossible to verify.  It is therefore a useless and illegitimate argument to put forward in the political arena, and not a good enough reason to legislate.  If we are truly convinced that brainwashing has taken place, then we must engage in “reverse-brainwashing”, putting forward alternative arguments, explaining the theory and the history of patriarchy, in the hope that people make different choices.  We might begin by discussing the value of facial expressions in communication, while taking an honest look at the idea of the “male gaze” and the undoubted objectification and sexualisation of the female form that is endemic in all cultures.

This is a longer and more frustrating approach, but far better than one which says that you are empowered by being criminalised.  Unfortunately, such long-term thinking rarely appeals to politicians, who favour the heavy-hand of legislation over deeper, cultural approaches.  A burqa ban is also a convenient dog-whistle for the far-right groups, who mainstream politicians are happy to pander to at the expense of a minority with no discernible political power.

If the burqa and the niqab are oppressive to women, then the only people who can shrug off that oppression is the women themselves.  Ripping off that ‘oppression’, by force and at a time of our own choosing, does not look like liberation at all.  It merely substitutes one form of dictatorship for another, returns no autonomy to the women themselves, and unwittingly endorses intolerance.  The philosopher Alain Badiou has a great formulation:

Basically put: these girls or women are oppressed. Hence, they shall be punished. It’s a little like saying: “This woman has been raped: throw her in jail.”

Interesting articles taking a similar view at the F-Word and Oye Times.

'Her Eyes' by Ranoush on Flickr. Creative Commons Licence.
‘Her Eyes’ by Ranoush on Flickr. Creative Commons Licence.

1. One might also suggest that women who wear too little are similarly brainwashed. After all, are they not persuaded to do so by the diktats of the celebrity gossip magazines?


Multiculturalism Notebook

The World Cup and European Cup can both be relied upon to kick-start debates about national identity. All the flags of St George we see about still conjure memories of sinister appropriation by far-right groups, and national identity is the natural topic of conversation if we are already debating xenophobia.  Over at Pickled Politics, Sunny has been musing on the English Defence League and their ridiculous manoeuvre to stop the sales of ‘Anyone But England’ T-shirts, on the grounds they incite hatred.

I left a comment there about how the problem seems to stem from the lack of an adequately defined ‘English’ identity, brought about because other identities like Scottish, Welsh and Irish, or Black-Asian-Minority-Ethnic, tend in part to be defined by their not-Englishness or their not-Whiteness.  And I enjoyed the metaphor I settled on at the end:

Personally, I think this calls for more multiculturalism, not less. by this, I mean the mindset that cultures can meet and exist within individual identities (rather than in communities). Those from ethnic minorities are, it seems to me, most adept at reconciling the competing claims on their identity. To take the case of Sri Hundal, our host here: he can be Indian, Silkh, English, British or European as the circumstances dictate. We all live within a giant Venn Diagramme of overlapping affiliations. I think the intellectual contortions of the EDL/CEP are simply attempts to avoid recognising this – a game of political Twister, if you will, which becomes more and more ridiculous at every turn.

I often worry that the sort of multiculturalism I support should more accurately be described as the ‘melting pot’.  However, that would look unattractive as a Venn Diagramme: one big circle.  The perpetual and unresolved diversity has value if we are each to make a genuine choice about our way of life, and diversity of thought and opinion is essential for democracy and progress too… So I am sticking with ‘multiculturalism’ for now.

Meawhile, I’ve also been listening to old Philosophy Bites podcasts, 15 minute introductions to some of the major issues in contemporary philosophy.  Specifically, Anne Phillips on Multiculturalism.  I enjoyed Phillips analysis of why multiculturalism is the least worst option for dealing with a society changed by global migration:

If you set up multiculturalism as opposed to mono-culturalism, then I think you have to say that multiculturalism is the way forward, because mono-culturalism is inequitable, its oppressive, its coercive.  But what I would argue for is what I, rather polemically, would call a Multiculturalism without Culture.  One that is no longer premised on these very solidified notions of culture, which I think encourage and promote cultural stereotypes, which in themselves prevent us from developing the kind of multicultural diversity I would support.

I see Anne Phillips has written a whole book called Multiculturalism without Culture.  The recognition that cultures are fluid is an essential piece of the puzzle.

The World Cup is Not Xenophobic

We’re only three days into the World Cup, and already I’m tired of the drone.  I speak not of the Vuzuvelas, but of the naysayers who dismiss the World Cup as being somehow xenophobic.  Laurie Penny was at it last week, now quoted approvingly by fellow Orwell Prize nominee Madame Miaow.    Even my friend Ste Curran was at it earlier, and I expected better from him.

These curmudgeons assume that any time two teams from different sides line up against each other, it is inherently warlike.  They assume that whenever anyone chooses to support a team based purely on nationality, they are indulging in a form of blind patriotism akin to the worst excesses of political nationalism.  And while the tone of these writings is, yes, a little knowing and light-hearted, I detect real sentiments of contempt in what they say.  How strange that these writers cannot perceive the knowingness of the football fans at which they sneer, the tongue-in-cheek tone with which real sports fans approach their passion.

In particular, the charge of ‘patriotism’, or of any kind of ‘ugliness’ does not stand up to even the most cursory of examinations.  Christ, you do not even need to go to South Africa to do this – the evidence is right there on the TV screens.  See those idiot fans, cheering and leering behind the po-faced TV reporters?  Look closely at their shirts, their face-paints, and you will see the colours of many teams, of many countries.  The fun of a football tournament like the World Cup lies as much in the meeting of new people from distant shores, as it does in actually watching the game itself. The rowdy fans at Rustenberg and elsewhere know this – it is why they bother.

I think that it is precisely because football is “only a game” you find its purest form in the international competitions, not the club game.  In the latter, I think the naysayers have a point – the excessive sums spent during tough economic times on ringers from overseas does seem obscene, bizarre and unsporting.  By contrast, managers of national teams are limited in who they can pick.  They cannot buy in new talent from elsewhere.  In this sense, their situation is closer to the game as most of us play it – you’re stuck with whoever is available.  At school, teams are usually organised arbitrarily along classroom divisions, or else by means of the dreaded ‘line-up’ so despised in the childhoods of the sportingly challenged.  Either way, the talent pool is limited and the team is stuck with whoever they are given.  In pub and amateur football (or any kind of team sport, really) you are similarly limited to whoever can get off work or out of bed in time for the 10:30 kick-off.  Likewise in kids’ football, which tends to operate on a subscription model over which the person picking the team has zero control.

The fun of most sport, indeed, of most games, lies in these arbitrary constraints.   We agree on some rules to abide by, and set ourselves other random constraints (such as the players, the cards, the dice)… and then we try our damnedest to win.  The fact it is all made up; that we have chosen to spend our time like this; that the outcome does not actually matter to our lives one iota; that it is entirely and necessarily divorced from our day-to-day existence:  That is where the ‘sport’ exists.  The fact that it doesn’t matter is precisely the point, because it is an escape from things that do matter.  Pointing out the futility of the exercise, usually by reference to the well worn “grown men kicking a pig’s bladder” cliche, is like the irritating snoot who tells everyone else how the magician does his tricks, thus spoiling the show.

Cheating in sport is despicable because it similarly breaks the suspension of disbelief in which the rest of us have colluded.  Related, I think, is the way in which the obnoxious amounts of money spent on footballers’ transfer fees leaves a sour aftertaste: buying in new players seems like an attempt to rig the initial conditions.  The presence of Kevin Pieterson in the England Cricket team makes many of us uneasy, despite his undoubted talent… because switching nationalities looks like an attempt to rig the initial conditions.

Football is so popular because most of us have the emotional intelligence to be able to buy in to the spectacle.  The utter frivolity of what is at stake is the perfect excuse for a great big global party, in which people of all ages, from all continents and from all religions, can participate.  The simplicity of the rules means literally everyone can understand what is going on.  Yes, there have been idiots who use football as an excuse for violence… but the game was always the excuse, and not the cause of that particular type of stupidity.  These men do not define the sport, and they are a dying breed.  In their place steps an ever growing number of sports fans who just want to watch the game with their friends, old and new.

Are we wasting too much media attention on the unfoldings of a meaningless tournament in South Africa?  I find it hard to be annoyed.  Once every four years, the eyes of all of humanity turn towards the same place.  Everyone, whether they like it or not, is distracted by the same thing.  It is not religious, it is not violent, and it cannot be bought.  Its a delightful phenomenon, one we should cherish.

Football fans from Germany and England celebrate in Cologne during the 2006 World Cup Finals
English and German Fans mix in Cologne, before a World Cup 2006 fixture

Cross-posted over at Liberal Conspiracy.

Speech to the Society of Young Publishers

A friend and collaborator just e-mailed to say he enjoyed my use of Hanif Kureishi’s formulation on multiculturalism, in my remarks at Goldsmiths College:

‘Multiculturalism’, he says, ‘is the idea that one might be changed by other ideas’. It is a movement based on the dialogic exchange of ideas, even traditions, based on ‘the idea that purity is incestuous’.

I have used it in another speech recently, to the Society of Young Publishers annual conference, in Oxford last December.  In the interests of posting something new to the blog on a Monday morning, here is the speech I wrote.  It is not necessarily the one that I actually gave, but until Jon S uploads a video of the proceedings, I’m safe. The discussion was on ‘The Responsibility to Publish’, and I shared the panel with Chris Brazier, Co-Editor at the New Internationalist, Sarah Totterdell, Head of Oxfam’s publications department, and Alan Samson from Orion Books.

The View from the Panel
The View from the Panel. Photo by yrstrly.

On being asked to speak at this event, I was terrified that I was going to end up speaking in tautologies. If you’re at the Society of Young Publishers, then you’re already speaking to a group of people who are, by definition, of the belief that publishing is a civic good, that they are part of civil society.

So, I want to say more. Let’s go the whole hog.  My first thought is this: That of The Arts, it is literature and publishing, that has by far the greatest impact on politics. Continue reading “Speech to the Society of Young Publishers”

Elsewhere, on Offence

In The Independent, Michael Coveney discusses theatre that offends, and what to do about it. There is a quote from yrstrly too:

Freedom of speech carries with it a freedom to insult; otherwise, as Tom Stoppard says, it’s not a freedom worth having. Bhatti’s first play was not based on any real-life case history, but offered as an extreme allegory of hypocrisy. And as a Sikh herself, who is she to be denied that privilege?

It says much about the state we’re in that her new play comes with explicit support from campaign groups Index on Censorship, English PEN and Free World. Robert Sharp of PEN says that the Sikhs who took exception to Behzti (and many prominent Sikhs didn’t) should remember that when you are satirised or criticised, then you’re relevant, you’ve arrived. But is there any limit to the offence a theatrical play can cause, or should there be?

“None at all,” says Sharp, “except perhaps from a clear incitement to violence. Freedom of speech and freedom of religion are sister rights. There is neither in China or Iran. People here should respond to things they don’t like by writing reviews, or writing their own plays.”

Both of the readers of this blog will note the provenance of the sound-bites offered. The bit about satire of minority faiths as a badge of relevance was first mooted in 2005; Putting limits on free speech in cases of incitement was noted last month; and my thoughts on counter-speech and responding through plays and reviews was the subject of a Comment is Free piece last year.  Its a long term project, but you can see how the blog-as-scrapbook model is beginning to pay off.

Wootton Bassett

Islam4UK want to march through Wooten Basset in a provocative protest against the British presence in Afghanistan. It is, as Dave Osler says on Liberal Conspiracy, a huge “headache” for the principled secular left who want defend free speech. Also at LibCon, Scepticisle points out that Anjem Choudry, who leads Islam4UK, is a “media troll” who is being deliberately provocative.  He wants to provoke a violent reaction, and the best course of action is to not give him one.  This means allowing the march to proceed, however offensive the message.  The small numbers it will attract will demonstrate just how fringe and ridiculous Choudry and his ideas actually are.

I’m surprised by the illiberal line taken by James Alexander at Progress:

This planned event will turn to violence and lead to a counter-response by the English Defence League. Then the BNP will begin to stir up divisions in the surrounding localities.

Even if you disagree with the actions of the brave soldiers who fight to protect British security, it is wrong to antagonise the families of the fallen. This is hateful and evil. I am writing to the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson MP, to call for Islam4UK to be also banned.

I don’t buy into the meme that a provocative march will necessarily be met with violence from outraged Britons.  Politicians and public figures should seize this as a ‘teaching moment’ and now use their influence to condemn in advance such actions, and inspire people to a more tolerant approach.  Gordon Brown has failed to do this so far.

Alexander’s Progress piece seems to have been seized upon by the sort of comments that one usually sees on tabloid comment boards.  I’ve just posted my own comment which sums up what I think:

I disagree with James Alexander … in suggesting that the Islam4UK march should be banned. That would be anti-free speech. If our troops are fighting for anything in Afghanistan, it is human rights, including the right to free expression (something sadly lacking in that country at the moment). The greatest tribute to our soldiers, living and fallen, would be to maintain our principles consistently at home and abroad: This means allowing the Islam4UK march.

The idea that the British people en mass cannot control themselves when confronted with a sorry band of Islamists is ridiculous and divisive. Locals and others who disagree with Islam4UK’s ridiculous ideas are perfectly capable of staging a bigger, peaceful counter-march, without any of the pathetic threats of violence that the other commenters here are so keen to see realised. It is this, and only this course of action that is consistent with the British spirit of tolerance and democracy. Progress members should be using their power and influence to bring this course of action about. Anything less is to sink towards the level of the fundamentalists.

Photo by Robin Hodson
A Wootten Basset memorial procession, 17th Nov 2009. Photo by Robin Hodson on Flickr.

A True Born Englishman?

I did not comment on Nick Griffin’s Question Time appearance last month because I was on holiday.  But I did catch it on one of the BBC World channels which are helpfully broadcast into South Africa.

Overall, my impression was that the other pannelists collectively agreed to discredit Griffin with ad hominems, rather than engage with, and demolish his arguments.  Several obvious and definitive retorts went begging.  For example, in response to Griffin’s unsophisticated critique of Islam, Baroness Warsi could simply have pointed out similar hateful lines from the Christian bible.  Instead, she made a round-about speech on the contribution of Muslims to Britain which looked like abvoidance of the question.  Likewise with the pathetic nonsense about “indigenous” Britons.  None of the pannellists seemed to counter this in the definitive manner I would have liked to see.

What they needed was some poetry.  I am delighted to discover The True Born Englishman by Daniel Defoe, written in 1703.  An excerpt:

The western Angles all the rest subdu’d;
A bloody nation, barbarous and rude:
Who by the tenure of the sword possest
One part of Britain, and subdu’d the rest
And as great things denominate the small,
The conqu’ring part gave title to the whole.
The Scot, Pict, Britain, Roman, Dane, submit,
And with the English-Saxon all unite:
And these the mixture have so close pursu’d,
The very name and memory’s subdu’d:
No Roman now, no Britain does remain;
Wales strove to separate, but strove in vain:
The silent nations undistinguish’d fall,
And Englishman’s the common name for all.
Fate jumbled them together, God knows how;
What e’er they were they’re true-born English now.

It reminds me of England, Half English by Billy Bragg:

My mother was half English and I’m half English too
I’m a great big bundle of culture tied up in the red white and blue
I’m a fine example of your Essex man
And I’m well familiar with the Hindustan
Cos my neighbours are half English and I’m half English too.


Andrew Sullivan makes this point in The Sunday Times, in a post about race in America: ‘Scratch white America and beneath it is black‘.

Balkanisation and the Internet

Via Robert Wright, here’s an interesting map of what Europe would look like, should all the current Independence movements in Europe get their way:

Conjecture of Europe 2020, by Chirol at
Conjecture of Europe 2020, by Chirol at

This illustrates the point Clay Shirky made about how Nation States might break down in the Internet Age, and my comments about how people might choose to constitute politcal units based on something other than brutal geography.

Defamation of Religion

This doesn’t look good:

Stressing that defamation of religions is a serious affront to human dignity leading to restriction on the freedom of religion of their adherents and incitement to religious hatred and violence…

The above is tajken from a text of a proposed UN Human Rights Council Resolution, seeking to condemn “defamation of religion”.  It only seems to mention Islam, however, and also says:

Deplores the use of the print, audio-visual and electronic media, including the Internet, and any other means to incite acts of violence, xenophobia or related intolerance and discrimination towards any religion, as well as targeting of religious symbols and venerated persons…

The problem here is that incitement to hatered and defamation of religion are two different things. English PEN argued this point when a Bill of similar spirit was introduced in 2005. Part of the problem is that intolerant groups like the BNP use the cover of religious criticism to veil their extreme xenophobia, and to inspire violence. But on the other hand, the idea of blasphemy and defamation are increasingly used to block any criticism of religion, which is never healthy.

The UN Watch blog says that the resolution is likely to be adopted, but is not binding on individual countries.  Nevertheless, it could mean that the UN is neutered in many human rights/free speech cases, such as the current travesty in Afghanistan, where Pervez Kambaksh has been sentenced to 20 years in prison on blasphemy charges.

I’ve always thought that both constructive criticism, and even satire, of any given faith was a sign of acceptance, like the teasing banter between teammates.  Its a sign that the majority agree that the minority group is here to stay, and must be engaged with.  Indeed, thoughtful criticism of a religion is also a tacit admission that it contains valuable aspects too. It is something to be welcomed, something that makes everyone strong.

That’s not how others see things, though.

The Linguists

Here is the website of The Linguists, a film about the collection and recording of dying languages at the Living Tongues Institute.

This blog has noted before the catastrophe of a lost language, which is a depletion of the sum of human knowledge.  Now I’m working for English PEN, which places a high value on translation and in seeking voices who express their thoughts in other languages, I appreciate all the more that the death of languages is a human rights issue.  Its linked to racism, oppression, and ethnic cleansing.

One of the last confirmed speakers of Amurdak, Charlie Mangulda
One of the last confirmed speakers of Amurdak, Charlie Mangulda

Via Seed and Kottke.